Editorial Feature

Replacing Petroleum in Chemicals with Lignocellulosic Biomass Deconstruction

Biofuels can be taken from plants to replace fossil fuels. Deconstructing the complex structure of lignin and cellulose so that the energy derived from the enclosed sugars can be harnessed is the main challenge. Bloom Biorenewables SA is unlocking this energy to help reduce reliance on fossil fuels in the transport and aviation sector, and to produce everyday materials.

biofuel

Image Credit: Chokniti Khongchum/Shutterstock.com

Lignocellulose describes plant matters (biomass), which is the most abundantly available raw material on the planet available to produce biofuels such as bioethanol – sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. These are made up of carbohydrate polymers such as cellulose and the aromatic polymer, lignin. Lignin is the major noncarbohydrate polymer in lignocellulose and accounts for approximately 15–32 w% of lignocellulosic raw materials.

The Fundamentals of Polymers

Polymers are materials made up of long, repeating strands of molecules. Their properties are unique depending on how various types of molecules are bonded. Some bend and stretch, such as man-made rubber, but some snap, as in the case of natural tree bark.

Organic polymers contribute to synthetic materials such as plastics and strong fibers essential to modern technologies. They are constructed of linear, branched, or cross-linked structures. Plastics are an example of polymers, but these are synthetic types as opposed to those occurring in nature.

Polymers are not always man-made; they occur in nature and can be made by living organisms. Even DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a type of polymer. In a double-helix DNA, two polymer chains are parallel to each other and twisted. Natural polymers can be extracted from nature for industrial use. They are usually water-based, with examples including silk, wool, DNA, cellulose, and proteins.

Plant Polymers for Green Energy

The most abundant polymers on the planet are cellulose and lignin – which are both major building blocks of plants. Cellulose is a molecule comprising hundreds to thousands of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Cellulose is the main substance making up plant cell walls, reinforcing their strength.

Lignin also forms structural elements in plant tissue, helping to reinforce plant cell walls, adding rigidity to wood and bark, for example. These complex organic polymers cannot be eaten and digested by humans but are useful for a range of industrial applications, particularly for the next generation of biofuels, due to their energy-containing molecules.

Cellulose and lignin from plant walls can be potential renewable sources of clean biofuels and high-value chemicals. However, there has long been the challenge of breaking down the complex 3D structure of lignocellulosic biomass to harness this power. There has been a call for improved methods for the sufficient fractionation and solubilization of major biomass components. To overcome the obstacles that come with lignocellulosic biomass deconstruction, scientists can pre-treat the biomass before catalytic processing.

Bloom Boosts Biomass Capabilities of Cellulose and Lignin

Bloom Biorenewables SA made a major step forward in addressing the challenge, having developed the first technology to convert cellulose and lignin into chemical products that can fuel a greener society. The award-winning company provides technology solutions that enable a transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a sustainable, plant-based one.

They have produced a lignin polymer, which can be used to yield sustainable phenolic monomers, and a water-soluble lignin biopolymer. They have also developed extremely pure and highly crystalline cellulose, which is a more sustainable alternative to some materials in the pulp and paper industry.

Blooms’ products also comprise functionalized sugars – a quality bio-based building block resulting from a sophisticated biorefining process, lignin aromatic monomers from uncondensed lignin specifically depolymerized to aromatic monomers, and high amounts of lignin oligomers sourced from deconstructed lignin.

They explain on their website: “With our aldehyde-assisted fractionation (AAF) technology, we efficiently separate the cellulose fraction while stabilizing lignin polymers and hemicellulose-derived sugars. These stabilized structures allow, for the first time, the full potential of lignin and hemicellulose to be valorized.”

Founded in 2019, Bloom is a spin-off from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). The award-winning company is running a pilot plant with a production capacity of 50 tons per year. The target market is the Flavours & Fragrances (F&F) industry with molecules of high demand such as vanillin and eugenol.
Petroleum Replacement Potential

Such polymers can contribute to the development of alternative fuels to help save 1.57 gigatons of CO2 a year, which is equivalent to 3% of global annual emissions. Petroleum fuels our cars and products, whether it is plastic packaging, the flooring in our room, or even our clothes. These items are made from petrochemicals derived from crude oil, which make up just under 20% of crude oil demand, potentially increasing to 29% by 2040 according to commodities analyst ICIS.

Approximately 35-40 million tons of aromatics are produced per year, and Bloom estimates that it can save 19.3 tons of CO2 emissions per every ton of biomass-based aromatics produced. Providing natural substitutes for the chemicals used to create polymers, drugs, and adhesives could markedly lower global emissions further.

Biofuels for the Future

Bloom’s biofuels can provide sustainable alternative energy sources for aviation and shipping industries, and the products offered can also be used to produce eco-friendly plastics, fragrance, food, and medicine.

Aromatics are another focus, which is normally petroleum-derived chemicals used to create fuels for the aviation and marine transport sectors, of which are challenging to decarbonize.

The company aims to increase capacity step-by-step, creating more aromatic molecules such as BTX and phenols for the chemical industry, creating a more sustainable future along the way.

References and Further Reading

Bloom Biorenewables – Homepage [Online]. Available at: https://bloombiorenewables.com/

Lignin – topic [Online]. Science Direct. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/lignin

Petchems, industry to become crude's saviours as electrification booms while recycling uptake poor [Online]. IEA. Available at:

https://www.icis.com/explore/resources/news/2020/10/13/10562936/petchems-industry-to-become-crude-s-saviours-as-electrification-booms-while-recycling-uptake-poor-iea

Petridis, L., Smith, J.C. (2018). Molecular-level driving forces in lignocellulosic biomass deconstruction for bioenergy. Nat Rev Chem 2, 382–389. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41570-018-0050-6

Properties of Polymers [Online]. Lumen Learning. Available at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-chemistry/chapter/properties-of-polymers/

Sanderson, K. (2011). Lignocellulose: A chewy problem. Nature 474S12–S14. https://www.nature.com/articles/474S012a

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Clarissa Wright

Written by

Clarissa Wright

Clarissa is a freelance writer specializing in science communication, contributing to a range of online media. Due to her lifelong interest in the natural world, she studied a BSc in Geology & Petroleum Geology at the University of Aberdeen, and a Master’s degree in Applied & Petroleum Micropalaeontology at the University of Birmingham.

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